TWENTY-THREE

An Eternity of Descent

The water was murky, swirling from surface winds, keeping divers Terry Bailey and Mike McAllister from seeing more than an arm’s reach in front of them. They had been diving for days, recovering Challenger’s debris, and, now, on this dive, they had only six minutes left in their tanks.

They were about one hundred feet down, moving across the sea floor, when they almost bumped into what at first appeared to be a tangle of wire and metal. It was nothing that unusual, nothing they hadn’t seen on many dives before. Then, they saw what was different: a spacesuit, full of air, legs floating toward the surface. There’s someone in it, Bailey thought.

No, that’s not right, he admonished himself. Shuttle astronauts do not wear pressurized spacesuits during powered flight. They wear jumpsuits. They carry along two pressure suits if they should be needed for an emergency spacewalk.

He turned to his partner. They just looked at each other and thought, “Jackpot!”

They had found the crew cabin but they were low on air, so the two divers made a quick inspection, marked the location with a buoy, and returned to their boat to report the find.

Early the next morning, the USS Preserver recovery ship put to sea. The divers began their grim task of recovering the slashed and twisted remains of Challenger’s crew cabin and its seven occupants.

On first inspection, it was obvious the crew vessel had survived Challenger’s fiery demise and its descent to its watery grave. A two-year-long investigation into how the crew cabin, and possibly its occupants, had survived was begun.

Veteran astronauts Robert Crippen and Bob Overmyer, along with other top experts, sifted through every bit of tracking data. They studied all the crew cabin’s systems down to the smallest, most insignificant piece of wreckage. They learned that at the instant the external fuel tank was breached by the rotating right booster, igniting 500,000 gallons of fuel, when a sheet of flame swept up past the window of pilot Mike Smith, there could be no question Smith knew—even in that single moment—that disaster had engulfed them. Something awful, something that had never before happened to a shuttle, was upon them.

Mike Smith uttered his final words for history, preserved on a crew cabin recorder: “Uh-oh!”

Immediately after, all communications between the shuttle and the ground were lost. At first, many people watching the blast, and some in Mission Control, believed the astronauts had died instantly—a blessing in its own right.

But they were wrong.

NASA’s intensive, meticulous studies of every facet of that explosion, comparing what happened to other blowups of aircraft and spacecraft, and their knowledge of the forces of the blast and the excellent shape and construction of the crew cabin finally led some investigators to a mind-numbing conclusion. The seven astronauts survived Challenger’s breakup.

Rob Navias, UPI’s outstanding radio voice who would later take a job with NASA, tracked the fate of Challenger’s crew intently. Navias, also a semifinalist in the Journalist in Space Project, told me NASA’s own forensic medical report, released July 6, 1986, concluded the crew most likely survived Challenger’s blast but was unconscious at impact.

Investigators found the explosive release of fuel that dismembered the wings and other parts of the shuttle were not great enough to cause immediate death, or even serious injury, to the astronauts. Challenger was designed to withstand a wing-loading force of 3 g’s (three times gravity), with another 1.5 g safety factor built in. When the external tank was ruptured and separated the two solid boosters, rapid-fire events, so swift they all seemed of the same instant, took place. In the shortest of moments, all fuel was gone from the big tank.

Navias said, “The computers still functioned and, right on design plan, dutifully noted the lack of fuel and shut down the engines.”

It was a supreme exercise in futility, because by then Challenger was no longer a spacecraft. One solid booster broke free, its huge flame a cutting torch across Challenger, separating a wing. Enormous g-loads snapped free the other wing. Challengercame apart—but the crew cabin remained essentially intact.

The explosive force sheared metal assemblies but was almost precisely the force needed to separate the still-intact crew compartment from the expanding cloud of flaming debris and smoke. The best data told the experts that Challenger broke up 48,000 feet above the Atlantic. The undamaged crew compartment, impelled by the speed already achieved, soared to a peak altitude of 65,000 feet before beginning its curve earthward.

It was only when the crew compartment smashed into the sea’s surface, and like a speeding bullet drilled a hole from the surface down to the ocean floor, that the impact crumpled the crew vessel into the tangled mass found by divers Bailey and McAllister.

Other experts argued that even with the crew cabin intact, wouldn’t the violent pitching and yawing of the cabin as it raced toward the ocean create g-forces so strong as to render the astronauts unconscious?

But that was before the investigation turned up the key piece of evidence that led to the inescapable conclusion that they were alive: The commander and pilot’s reserve oxygen packs had been turned on by astronaut Judy Resnik, seated directly behind them. Furthermore, the pictures, which showed the cabin riding its own velocity in a ballistic arc, did not support an erratic, spinning motion. And even if there were such g-forces, commander Dick Scobee was an experienced test pilot. His body was trained and accustomed to such violent forces of flight and most likely could have handled the g-forces as did the bodies of Neil Armstrong and David Scott during the violent spinning of Gemini 8 if, and this is the big IF, Challenger still had power, pressure, and oxygen.

The evidence led most experts I’ve interviewed to conclude that the seven astronauts did not have power, pressure, and oxygen, and lived for only a short time after the blast.

Some dispute this conclusion, and the truth is there is no way of knowing absolutely at what moment the Challenger Seven lost their lives.

NASA made this official admission: “The forces on the Orbiter (shuttle) at breakup were probably too low to cause death or serious injury to the crew but were sufficient to separate the crew compartment from the forward fuselage, cargo bay, nose cone, and forward reaction control compartment.” The official report concluded, “The cause of death of the Challenger astronauts cannot be positively determined.”

The man arguably the closest to the investigation, and in my mind the best of the lot in shuttle pilots, veteran astronaut Robert Crippen, is convinced Challenger’s seven survived only a short time after the breakup.

Why?

Because of the three facts stated before: power, pressure, and oxygen.

“Without pressure and oxygen at those altitudes, you don’t stay awake very long,” astronaut Crippen said flatly.

Challenger broke apart at 48,000 feet, and its crew cabin climbed to 65,000 feet before gravity grabbed it and brought it back to Earth. During that two-minute-and-forty-five-second flight, Crippen feels, all members of the crew surely would have lost consciousness.

Dr. Gene McCall, recently retired chief scientist of the air force’s Space Command, agrees with Crippen. Dr. McCall told me, “Pressure is only 20 percent of normal at 48,000 feet where the Challenger breakup occurred, and the pressure at 65,000 feet, the crew cabin’s highest altitude, is only 7.5 percent of normal. At those altitudes the time it would take to lose normal brain function is nine to twelve seconds, and at these very low pressures even 100 percent oxygen will not keep you alive. These altitudes and pressures and times in the Challenger accident would have rapidly caused loss of consciousness, and the crew would certainly have been unconscious, even if alive, at impact.”

The bottom line and most accepted and informed conclusion?

Challenger’s seven were asleep at the end.

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